I ran out of time. For a year I intended to write about turning 50 – a contemplative, insightful piece extoling the wisdom gained from living for half a century, but in a few days I’ll be 51. Gone the way of shoulder pads and stirrup pants, like it or not, the time has passed.
I ran out of time though I’ve tried diligently to slow down my life and clear some space. Simplify, downsize, prioritize; these are my buzz words. Progress is evident, although the perfect balance wherein I fulfill my roles of mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend and instructor, and manage to shave under my arms occasionally . . . this eludes me still.
The other night, my father-in-law, glancing at my Google calendar on my iPhone, its colorful blocks stacked atop, beside and overlapping each other like a patchwork quilt, looked from the screen to my face and said, “You’re too busy.”
This, I know. How to change it, I do not.
“What can I cut, Dad?” I asked, a little desperate, a little exasperated.
Life seems to be speeding up, or perhaps it’s that more life is crammed into a single day. I know my parents’ generation raised their families in a slower time. Compare a rotary phone on the wall, its handset tethered by a 10 foot spiral cord, to a smart phone, handheld and able to, at virtually any time, any place, connect to limitless information . . . and limitless other smart phones. Technology adds convenience, but these instant connections, particularly in the form of text messages, demand instant responses, & idk if we r betr 4 it.
During the last week of school my moderately frenetic pace kicked up to severely frantic. With routines out of whack, extra activities to manage and preparations for the upcoming summer vacation (‘vacation’ is truly a misnomer), the needle on my stress gauge pushed into the red.
With Type-A drive I tackled numerous projects at once, the way I know best – with sleep deprivation and coffee. The goal; to knock out as many items as quickly as possible. My monkey-mind chanted an endless to-do list like a scrolling marquee across the back of my mind. I was running out of time.
In the midst of it all, Sydney had, as a result of a sleep study and the subsequent diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea (common in kids with Down syndrome), a tonsillectomy, and was spending the week recovering at home. Before surgery, she charmed the staff with her smiles and snappy come-backs, but afterward, my brave girl was miserable and understandably, a bit grumpy. We stuck to an alternating 3 hour dosing of Tylenol and Motrin to keep the pain at bay. Armed with popsicles and ice cream and soup and mashed potatoes, we told her she could watch as much Disney Channel as she liked.
Since Sydney’s my easy-going kid, stoic with a high tolerance for discomfort and doesn’t complain often, I figured it would be, for the most part, business as usual. Steven and I arranged our schedules to trade off being home, but I anticipated that while she rested I’d be able to toggle between making milkshakes and sending emails.
Uh, yeah. No.
She didn’t really rest. In fact, she was rest-less, never settling for more than 30 minutes at a time. She couldn’t focus on TV, it hurt too much to eat (even ice cream), and she had no interest in her iPad. She wanted to talk. To me.
“Um, excuse me, Mom?” Sydney asked from the table. “Why my voice is low?”
I answered from my computer without looking. “It’s from your tonsils, remember?”
I’d just blended a smoothie to chase a round of medicine, hoping for a few free minutes to compose an email. “Don’t worry. It won’t last.”
“Why can’t I go to school?” she asked.
“Hmmmm?” I replied, fingers flying over the keys. “School?”
“Why am I not at school?” She repeated.
I could picture her face though my back was to her; eyes opened wide behind purple wire-frames, eyebrows arched high, her mouth frozen in the shape of the last vowel sound she made. She’d asked this question every day, several times a day, for the last week.
“You know why. You tell me, why you aren’t you in school?” I said trying to be patient, though I felt anything but.
“Because I had my tonsils out?” she asked, acting unsure.
But she knew. I’d noticed her strategy of waiting for me to pick up my phone, then immediately starting in with obvious questions to which she knew the answer. The more I needed to concentrate, the more effort she made to divert my attention. And the more she kept me from working, the more annoying it became. In front of me, my iMac displayed the afternoon’s tasks; open Word documents, several tabs on the web browser, iTunes with my playlists for teaching, an unfinished email to Sydney’s teacher. And my calendar. Always my calendar.
Behind me, my daughter waited for an answer.
Realizing it had been several seconds, I turned and looked directly into her eyes. “Yes, honey,” I said firmly, “because you had your tonsils out.”
Her days were long, her throat hurt and she was lonely. My compassion stirred when she said, “I just miss my friends, Mom.”
“I know, sweetie. I’m sorry.” I got up and walked to her, resigned to the conversation for the moment.
“Good job! You drank your whole smoothie!” I said with over-the-top enthusiasm as I took the empty cup to the kitchen sink.
She soaked up the praise with a smile and a shy little shrug.
“I know you miss your friends, but you’ll see them at yearbook signing, remember?”
She perked visibly at the mention. “Oh, yeah! Yearbook signing. On Thursday, right?”
“Yep. On Thursday.”
She sat without speaking as I rinsed dishes and loaded them into the dishwasher. Though I heard my daughter’s angst, my monkey-mind chattered louder, calculating what was due when. I was running out of time.
“Mom needs to get some work done now, Syd. Okay?”
She was quiet.
“How about a pudding?”
“Do you want anything else?” I asked. “I can put on a movie.”
“No, I’m fine,” Sydney said, matter-of-factly.
I registered her disappointment, but I was up against a deadline and the detailed work required focus. I sat down once again and the clacking of the keyboard filled the silence. For 15 seconds.
“Mom? Excuse me.”
“Wow,” I said, taking a deep breath. Patience, Lisa. “You sure are talking a lot today. Doesn’t that hurt your throat?”
“No-oo!” she answered emphatically. “I just . . . , I just have tonsil breath,” she stammered, referring to the unfortunate halitosis following a tonsillectomy.
Her voice, from behind, carried recognition; she knew what she was doing, but couldn’t stop herself. I didn’t catch the rest of what she said; I was reading the three texts I’d just received. My adrenaline rose as my shoulders tensed up to my ears. And my monkey-mind chanted away. Running. Out. Of. Time.
“I know I’m talking a lot,” Sydney admitted.
Tapped, no restraint remaining, I interjected, “And . . . you’re driving me CRA-zy.”
An offhand remark, casual, yet careless, it stung with more bite than was intended. But I didn’t know that yet. I went on with my work for a minute before a subtle energy permeated my unraveling focus. I felt more than heard something and turned around.
Grimacing with silent sobs, Sydney bent over her pudding, shoving bite after bite in her mouth until it overflowed. She inhaled sharply and coughed. Snot billowed from her nose until her face was a mass of chocolatey mucus.
“Oh, honey!” I jumped up and grabbed a Kleenex, wiping her nose and mouth quickly. “Swallow,” I said, holding the straw of her water jug to her mouth. “Breathe,” I directed. She cleared her throat repeatedly then took a shaky breath as she tried to calm herself.
When she could talk, she said softly, “I get it, Mom.” Speaking with a wisdom I forget she is capable of, her words held the implication that she did indeed understand how swamped I was and that she was doing her best not to need too much from me.
“I know we have a busy schedule?” she continued, shrugging and turning one palm up as if to say, ‘it is what it is,’ “but,” her small voice quivered, “you’re going to the gym and . . . ,” she paused, “And . . . and . . . and I just really . . . “
I waited, my attention fully–and finally–and my daughter.
” . . . miss you.” The last two words came out high-pitched and barely audible.
Her chin trembled. She tucked her head down and reaching her index finger underneath her glasses, and wiped fresh tears from her eyes. Lifting her head with a slow inhalation, she looked to see if I was watching, then choked out the words, “but, I . . . just . . . NEED . . . you!” And with that, she abandoned her fight to hold back the tide of her emotions.
Remorse hit me like a wave. My heart broke open wide. The tightness in my chest loosened and slid away as I gathered her in my arms. She buried her gooey face in my belly and we both cried.
In the past I would have castigated myself for being a bad mother, but as an older parent, my compassion extends to myself as well. With maturity comes the recognition that when I’m drained by overdoing, I lack what she needs from me; it’s just not there. I can’t make it materialize. Conclusion: In order to take care of Sydney, I need to take care of myself.
The overdoing has to stop. This I know. How I to change it, I have not known. But perhaps the analogy of sand, pebbles and rocks in a glass jar illustrates how. My time – a finite amount – is represented by the glass jar; the sand, pebbles and rocks are all the many, many things that fill that time, ranging from smallest to biggest. Fill the jar starting with the sand and only a few big rocks will fit. But reverse the order and miraculously, everything slips into place. It becomes clear to me: if the big rocks are gonna fit, they must go in first.
My fatal flaw? Everything has been a big rock; I’ve missed the distinction between size and texture and value. But now I know it just ain’t so. Obviously, Sydney is a bona fide big rock along with my other children and my husband. But, what about me? Is it possible to forgo some sand and pebbles to make room for a big rock of my own? I don’t know whose permission I’ve been waiting for. Who’s jar is it, anyway? In my 50th year, these shifting perceptions and realigning priorities influence my choices more than external expectations. The voice I’m attuning to now comes from within – not without – myself.
My friend, Jackie once told me, special-needs mom to special-needs mom: “There is just no way to get it all done, so I have to let some things, the less important things slip.” Since it is my jar, I get to decide what’s more, and less, important. If worry about the big rocks, the rest can slip. No more running out of time for what really matters.
I untangled from Sydney and pulled back to look at her puffy, reddened eyes. I sighed, smoothing her hair back from her face. Such a precious girl. My daughter.
“Do you want to watch a movie?” I asked.
She looked crestfallen. I’m sure she was thinking, ‘Mom is shoving me off again.’
I added, “With me?” and a smile lit up her face as we headed to the couch.